Tiding islanders over

The General Store of Cranberry Island, Maine, population 30, has recently changed ownership—from one Bryn Mawrter to another. Barbara Bornemann Stainton ’55 bought the store from the woman Lydia Lyman ’39 sold it to three years ago. Lyman herself owned the store for “jolly close to eight years.”

As members of neighboring communities, Lyman and Stainton had conversed casually for some years, but “college affiliation,” says Stainton, “was never on the agenda.” Then they met at a BMC reunion in 1995. “Big surprise to both of us, I think,” she says.

Lyman lives on nearby Mount Desert Island and eventually sold the store because “it became too complicated to manage from a distance. There’s lots of angles to something like that,” she says, “especially if you’re not there plunk square on the mainland, in the main route.” Now retired, Lyman at one time owned three stores—Cranberry Island’s store, a liquor store on Mount Desert Island and another general store on another nearby island.

For almost two years, Cranberry Island’s general store was only open in the summertime. That’s the reason Stainton, who lives on the island, decided to buy it. The winters with no general store were “absolutely awful,” says Stainton, partly because there was no place for passengers to wait for the ferry. “Standing on an exposed pier with the wind blowing 30 miles an hour is not very pleasant when it’s 20 degrees outside. People don’t have to buy anything, but they’re welcome to stand and wait in the store, where it’s warm. Or they can sit down and look out the window to see the boat coming. If they want lunch or a cup of coffee, that’s available, too. But it’s not mandatory.”

The general store is a fixture of small-town New England life. It provides sundries and staples to tide locals over until they can get to larger stores in more populated areas. “You should be able to buy some milk if you run out,” Stainton says, “or a loaf of bread if you need it. We don’t expect people to shop exclusively at our store, but just to know it’s there.” She also stocks health and beauty products; beer, wine and cigarettes, the biggest sellers; flat-tire remedies (there is no garage on the island); chain-saw oil, cleaning supplies, paper towels—“a little bit of everything,” Stainton says. “Not so much in the way of fine, dried smoked salmon, although in the summertime we do stock fancier food to keep the summer people happy. But in the wintertime we’re back to meat and potatoes, cabbage and onions.”

Moving to an island and operating its only store may sound idyllically quaint, but Stainton warns that island life, although “physically lovely,” has its drawbacks. Especially troublesome is stocking the store. Shipments arrive in plastic-covered boxes, which must be hand-loaded off the boat, onto a truck, and then off the truck and into the store. “You get very familiar with the weight of each box of groceries,” she says. “It’s a big job.”

But to Stainton, the hard work with minimal monetary rewards is worth it. A general store is “a place to see somebody else. And the last thing you need in a dwindling community is for the social center to die, which is effectively what a general store is in a small town like this.” Stainton and her husband David, a naval architect, moved to Maine from Vermont in 1986, and together own the Cranberry Island Boat Yard.

—Alicia Bessette

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